Dig For Victory

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Dig For Victory

World War II campaign to Grow More Food

By 1938, Britain imported two-thirds of its total food supplies. With the threat of an impending war, all available shipping space was needed for the war effort. Accordingly, Britain was facing the possibility of food shortages at best and starvation at worse. In August 1939, Government Minister Dorman-Smith announced, he was launching a nationwide campaign to and those that could not join the army recruits in other way could join the ranks as a food producer. The objective of this Grow More Food (GMF) campaign was to provide half a million more allotments, mainly in urban areas, to enable the recruits to grow vegetables and raise rabbits and chickens for additional food. The Grow More Food campaign was subtitled ‘Dig for Victory’ – a slogan that caught the public imagination and stuck. At that time, there were about 740,000 allotment plots in England and Wales. By the end of 1942, there were 1,400,000 plots and an unknown number of home gardens and ‘unofficial’ plots under cultivation.[1] In March 1944, the government estimated[2] that domestic agriculture accounted for ‘10 percent (some 3 million tons) of all food produced in this country.’ The exact number of allotments was not known because authorities only furnished broad particulars from 1939-43 inclusive instead of making full returns.

At the outbreak of hostilities, local authorities were empowered to requisition unoccupied land without permission, It was estimated that there were 600,000 plots on requisitioned land [3] occupied land with permission of the owner, and common land with permission of the minister.[4] Slightly later, councils were authorised, under the Defence Regulation (62A), to convert parks, playing fields, and ‘any other land in their possession’[5] for use as allotments. This move was not universally popular, and the president of the Middlesex Cricket Club remarked that sport was necessary for the welfare of the nation. The Royal Parks of London did set aside some land for use as allotments, although not their sporting pitches. Many sporting clubs, however, did turn land over to agricultural use, because of falling membership numbers due to conscription.[6]

Councils were and indeed still are, under a statutory duty to provide allotment sites. As the need for more housing and the accompanying infrastructure pushed up the value of land, the allotment holder, who, with very few exceptions, was merely a squatter, was ‘chased from pillar to post.’[7] There was also a belief that the council was ‘anxious to dispose of its allotments as they [were] a financial liability.’[8] Viola Williams, who worked for the Women’s Farm and Garden Association during the war, believed that as soon as the war came to an end, allotments became ‘the prime targets for housing building,’[9] as indeed they are today. Consequently, the need for security of tenure was, and is, a fundamental campaigning issue for allotment societies.

The National Allotment Journal (NAJ) was the published voice of the National Union of Allotment Holders, and it frequently expressed concern over the tenure of plots. In September 1942, the journal reported that at its annual conference that there ‘were no less than eighteen resolutions tabled on the important subject of tenure showing how strongly the movement feels that the Government ought to make a serious attempt to deal with this vital issue.’ However, even during the height of the Dig for Victory (DFV) campaign, there were reports of allotment holders losing their land, 23,166 square feet in one instance, ‘because the Plessy Company want to build a canteen.’[10] Concern over the post-war tenure of land was voiced as early as March 1942, when allotment holders were concerned that sites would be ‘snatched for jerry-building immediately after the war.’[11]

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Nevertheless, the initial response to the DFV campaign was described as excellent, with more ‘allotments awaiting new plot-holders than of unsatisfied demand for the land.’[12] The Ministry of Agriculture distributed 191,000 DFV posters and 1,750,000 allotment application leaflets. There were ‘masses and masses of leaflets . . . the radio was full of instruction about doing everything possible . . . we had leaflets on everything under the sun, that would help us to produce more food of various sorts.’[13]

The Home Front was very much regarded as part of the war arena. Propaganda was intended to make the kitchen and the allotment part of the battlefield. Its ‘recruits’ were urged to go and defend and strengthen the home front ‘with the spade and the hoe as emblem and armament.’[14] Food, according to Lord Woolton, the government Minister for Food, was a ‘munition of war.’

In August 1940, Churchill lent his support to the campaign in words borrowed from one of his iconic speeches:

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. Here is one way in which millions can show they appreciate that debt. Let them make a personal contribution to the Dig for Victory campaign. They will be helping to ensure that our people have that last week’s supply of food that may well be one of the decisive factors in our victory.[15]

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Some people[16] believed that when Churchill took office, things changed, and people stopped growing flowers and took notice of the DFV campaign. Householders turned flowerbeds and lawns into vegetable plots. Vegetables were planted between flowers where to ensure that gardens still had an aesthetic quality. Local authorities set up demonstration allotments in parks and recreation grounds. Even cinemas distributed leaflets and had displays of tools and produce.[17] Competitions were held to encourage people to join the DFV campaign. Prizes were often in the form of War Savings Certificates.

Specialists from the Ministry of Agriculture gave countrywide lectures, as did gardeners from the Royal Horticultural Society. ICI employed a group of five lecturers, each one assigned to a specific geographic region. They gave talks to allotment societies, schools and colleges promoting plant protection products.[18] War Agricultural Committees were very much involved with the DFV campaign. One employee remembered how ‘we were given a van, a big demonstration van . . . and we used to go round to the villages and park on the village green and open up, and do demonstration or advisory work, and we were known as the circus . . . It was absolutely tremendous the surge of growing vegetables and fruit and the collection of anything wild that could be collected that could be made into a preserve or into a sweet or something.’[19]

By September 1940, only 13 months after the campaign had been launched, many people were left with excess produce and no advice on what to do with it. In response, the Ministry of Food announced an official plan to help in rural areas. The NAS, along with local community councils, the Women’s Institute (WI) and horticultural organisations, were asked to make estimates of the surplus fruit and vegetables. Whereupon, they were to be taken to collecting centres for grading and consigned for delivery to the green-grocery trade. Produce was disposed of locally, wherever possible. For example, the WI sold it on stalls at local markets at wholesale price. One gardener arranged to distribute her large surplus to recently arrived troops in her neighbourhood.[20] Another gardener, who had ‘sacrificed a large part of his garden to vegetable production,’[21] decided to give away the produce to the wives of service men, local schools and hospitals. One of the more unusual suggestions to deal with excess produce came from André Simon, who suggested wholesalers and retailers should steam or simmer leftover vegetables and press them into moulds. Then, the housewife would have a choice between fresh vegetables or a slab of day-old cooked vegetables.[22]

Despite the enthusiasm, not everyone was in a position to join the campaign. It was suggested that those without access to land might take over derelict gardens, or try growing mustard and cress indoors, and radishes, lettuces and tomatoes in window boxes or on roof gardens. The aged or infirm were often reliant upon charitable friends and neighbours to supply them with produce.

It was not just the public who were urged to join the DFV. All military units were asked to plant their own vegetables and use them as much as possible. The Times reported that RAF stations were continuing to Dig for Victory and that a ‘great number of the aerodromes will be self-supporting in vegetables.’[23] Vegetables, mainly potatoes and carrots, were grown along the runways. One participant described the Army programme on DFV as ‘irksome.’[24] She believed that everybody had the same experience. Those who did the most digging were posted away just as the fruits of their labours came up. ‘So a terrible malaise about this developed . . . it went right through the army and possibly the other services too.’[25] Nevertheless, the campaign played a large part in ensuring that the population of the UK remained well fed and healthy during the war years.

 REFERENCES USED

[1] Thorpe. H., 1969 Departmental Committee of Inquiry into Allotments. London: Parliamentary Papers

[2]Thorpe. H., 1969 Departmental Committee of Inquiry into Allotments. London: Parliamentary Papers

[3] Thorpe. H., 1969 Departmental Committee of Inquiry into Allotments. London: Parliamentary Papers

[4] Cultivation of Lands (Allotments) Order 1939

[5] Thorpe. H., 1969 Departmental Committee of Inquiry into Allotments. London: Parliamentary Papers

[6] The Times March 13 1940, 11

[7] Fay, C. R. 1942. The Allotment Movement in England and Wales. The Year Book of Agricultural Co-operation. London.

[8] Thorpe. H., 1969 Departmental Committee of Inquiry into Allotments. London: Parliamentary Papers

[9] Imperial War Museum Sound Archive #20321

[10] Ilford Recorder August 28 1941, 5

[11] Ilford Recorder March 26 1942, 3

[12] The Times December 7, 1939, 6

[13] Imperial War Museum Sound Archive #20321

[14] National Allotments Journal (NAJ) September 1941, 1

[15]National Allotments Journal (NAJ) Autumn 1940, 3

[16] Imperial War Museum Sound Archive #20321

[17] The Times February 14 1940, 5

[18] Imperial War Museum Sound Archive #19530

[19] Imperial War Museum Sound Archive #19530

[20] The Times September 26 1940, 2

[21] The Times August 10 1940, 2

[22] The Times September 16, 1940, 5

[23] The Times April 11 1942, 2

[24] Imperial War Museum Sound Archive #18001

[25] Imperial War Museum Sound Archive #18001

 

  

 

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